Reflections on the creation of Pakistan in the context of Muslim history

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Rajab 18, 1431 2010-07-01

Special Reports

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 5, Rajab, 1431)

Almost every statement in the above paragraph, except perhaps for the simple statement of fact with which it starts, could prove the subject of heated debate.

Pakistan and India will mark their “Independence Days” on August 14 and 15 respectively. The difference of a day is significant. Pakistan, created as a modern nation-state for the Muslims of India on the basis of the “two nation” theory, and including at that time modern-day Bangladesh of course, did not secede from an independent, united India. Instead, it was granted independence as the last act of the British Empire in India, before the rest of the country became the independent Union of India the following day. As a result, it can be argued that the Indian subcontinent has never been a single, united political entity, and the assumption that that is or should be its natural state, except for the perfidy of those Muslims who insisted on dividing it, is groundless. Even under the British, after all, who are sometimes said to have united India under their rule, the subcontinent actually consisted of a patchwork of directly-ruled provinces and princely states formally tied to Britain by treaties.

Almost every statement in the above paragraph, except perhaps for the simple statement of fact with which it starts, could prove the subject of heated debate. More than 60 years after the partition of India — a phrase that is itself inaccurate and politically loaded, although it has become widely accepted — that history remains both deeply disputed and politically volatile. Both successor states (we shall focus on India and Pakistan, leaving aside the later breakup of Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh) have their semi-official national histories, and both have tended to treat the other as their national enemy, although that is changing somewhat as some in Pakistan’s secular, Westernised elite find they have more in common with their equivalents in India than with many in their own country.

The semi-official national histories are easy to summarise. For Pakistan, the country was created by a heroic national movement determined to save the Muslims of India — one of two “nations” in the country — from permanent subservience to the country’s Hindu majority. This was achieved by carving out a dar al-Islam in India’s Muslim-majority provinces, as envisaged by the “national poet” Muhammad Iqbal before his death in 1938, thanks to the leadership of Qaid-e Azam (great leader) Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah’s death shortly after the creation of Pakistan deprived the country of his visionary leadership, but it remains “the first modern nation state founded on Islam” and a major achievement for an Ummah still reeling from the loss of the Ottoman Khilafah.

Pakistan’s troubled history since 1947 does little to dent this foundation myth — not entirely baseless, to be fair — in the minds of its proponents, and India remains the great enemy to be blamed for all Pakistan’s problems; again not entirely baselessly. And even among many of those in Pakistan with greater historical self-awareness, the plight of Muslims in India in recent years serves as a sobering confirmation that the basis for the creation of Pakistan, the argument that Muslims could expect nothing but trouble from India’s Hindu majority once the British were gone, was fundamentally sound and the creation of a separate state for Indian Muslims the best option for them.

For Indians, meanwhile, the creation of Pakistan and the partition of “Mother India” was an act of treachery on the part of Indian Muslims, confirming that they were never proper Indians in the first place. The fact notwithstanding that India has never been united in its history, and is arguably as socially and culturally diverse as Europe or even Africa, the creation of Pakistan is believed to have split the “nation” on the eve of its coming of age, leaving an India scarred and diminished until, as some Indians fervently believe, it can be made “whole” again sometime in the future. The result is that many Indians, not least in the media, take great pride in their own perceived progress, and often even greater satisfaction in Pakistan’s problems, made all the sweeter by the fact that they are blamed on Islam.

For many Muslims who remained in India, the establishment of Pakistan was a bittersweet moment, not least because the heartlands of the Pakistan movement were in the previously-Muslim ruled areas of central-northern India, such as the United Provinces (UP, formerly Awadh, now Uttar Pradesh), which remained in India, although the Pakistan movement never had universal support among Muslims there. Many foresaw the problems they have subsequently faced in India, regarded as outsiders in the lands they have lived in for centuries and once proudly ruled, and regard them as largely down to the creation of Pakistan and the Hindu reaction to it. Some Muslim Indians, in the secular elite, have responded by becoming as Indian, as nationalist, as secular, and as anti-Pakistani as possible; although few have actually abandoned Islam. For others, the problems they have faced are confirmation of the justifications for the creation of Pakistan, even though they chose to remain in India themselves.

These are of course only very broad generalisations of a few of the many subtly different shades of opinion among Muslims on both sides of the divide. But the differences and debates that they suggest remain very much alive today, not least among those Muslims, in both countries and in the diaspora, who have connections in both countries.

Despite an overwhelming sense of the futility of the questions, the same ones inevitably comes up every year at this time: Was the creation of Pakistan right? Haven’t the Muslims of India suffered greatly as a result? Hasn’t Pakistan proved a dismal failure? Wouldn’t we all be better off today if Pakistan had never been established? For many, on both sides, the answers are obvious and barely require discussion; for others, the questions are imponderable and unanswerable, and therefore hardly merit discussion.

My own view is perhaps closer to the latter. History is full of what-ifs, and counter-factual history is seldom constructive. More than 60 years after the events, we all have to live with the consequences of what actually happened, however we may interpret them. We have to move forward now from where we are today. There is little to be gained by looking back and arguing about whether or not this is the way we should have come. Nonetheless, the questions do come up every year, so perhaps it is worth making some points to bear in mind when discussing them, from the perspective of the Islamic movement in terms of which we are operating today.

The first is that the Pakistan movement was not an Islamic movement per se, even though many Muslims understood it as such, both inside India and elsewhere. (See for example the role of Muhammad Asad and the views of people such as Malek Bennabi and Sayyid Qutb.) The confusion is understandable, as the movement was rallied in the name of Islam, and many of those who followed it did so out of their commitment to Islam first and foremost; but for its leaders, Islam was never the basis or the guiding principle of their work, and the state they envisaged was very definitely not an Islamic one. Jinnah and the Muslim League were Indian nationalists for whom Islam was a subcategory of their Indian identity. (Already rising murmurs of discontent can be heard from many Pakistanis…)

A visionary such as Iqbal may have dreamt of Pakistan as the basis for an Islamic civilizational resurgence, but for the secular Muslim politicians who took up the call years after his death, it was only a negotiating card in their attempts to secure for themselves a share of the legacy of British rule once the British left. Their demand was for an independent India that was a loose federation, with strong provinces and a weak central government, so they could exercise power in the Muslim provinces even though they had no chance of power at the all-India level. In 1946, in a final attempt to prevent the partition of India, this is precisely what the British offered, and Jinnah accepted with alacrity. At this stage, it was Nehru and theIndian National Congress, preferring to rule a strong central state in a reduced India rather than a weak state in a united but federal India, who insisted on partition.

And so the Muslim League’s bluff was called, and the Pakistan that Jinnah never wanted was established. By this time, of course, the Pakistan movement had taken up a momentum of its own, fired by Muslim masses who believed that the Qaid-e Azam was fighting for a dar al-Islam; and so it was that Jinnah, the secular nationalist whose hero was Mustafa Kemal, found himself as the creator of a supposed Islamic nation-state. His early death was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for it left others to deal with the problems regarding the place and role of Islam in the state that were bound to follow; problems which, it should be noted, were by means unique to Pakistan, but common to almost every Muslim country emerging from colonialism.

Where then, one might ask, was the Islamic movement at the time? Is it true, as has been suggested, that the real Islamic movement in British India opposed the creation of Pakistan? This too is an over-simplification. The problem was that there was not effective Islamic political movement in British India at the time to offer an alternative leadership to that of the Muslim League. There were Islamic voices, of course, but they were scattered, lacked community roots and credibility, and were unable to provide genuine and realistic leadership. This was a legacy of the impact on Muslim institutions and society of British rule. Throughout, and after 1857 in particular, Muslims and Islam were seen as the key threat to the empire and the main targets of British repression. The intellectual infrastructure of Indian Islam had been shattered in 1857, with the destruction of Delhi; the great institutions of Islam that emerged in the British period, notably the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, were mere off-shoots that sprouted from some of its scattered fragments. (Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi had been young scholars forced to flee Delhi in 1857, before establishing Deoband in 1866.) This experience of defeat and domination has arguably coloured much Islamic thought in India ever since.

That is not to say that there was no Islamic activism in British India, of course; the Khilafat movement that led protests against the abolition of the Ottoman Khilafah after the First World War, and established contact with similar Islamic movements in the Arab world, is proof of that. But in terms of political vision, Islamic activists were unable to rise above the framework imposed by British rule, and offer any alternatives to the secular nationalist options proffered by the INC and the Muslim League. For many, British imperialismremained the key enemy, and so nationalism the natural ally. Several major figures, such as Abul Kalam Azad and the Deobandi leaders of the Jamiat Ulama-e Hind, supported Congress and opposed the call for Pakistan, both for Indian nationalist reasons and because they regarded the whole of India as formerly and potentially dar al-Islam.

A more radical and progressive Islamic political position was being developed by Maulana Maududi, but the Jama‘at-i Islami, which was to dominate Islamic political activism in Pakistan, as well as having a substantial presence in independent India, was only established in 1941, and Maududi could only react to events as the British rule over India unrivalled, rather than seeking to lead them; this was reflected in his position in 1945 when he said that he opposed the establishment of Pakistan but would have voted for the Muslim League.

This perhaps sums up the problem facing Indian Muslims at the time; even those who were unconvinced by the arguments of the Muslim League had nowhere else to go, given the increasingly Hindu character of the Congress thanks to the influence of Karam Chand Gandhi, which made the arguments of those Muslims who backed Congress seem untenable. Of course the subsequent problems of Muslims India can be both used to justify the arguments for the creation of Pakistan, and blamed on the fact of it… just one of the many unresolvable imponderables of Muslim history.

These are issues for which there can be no satisfactory answers. We cannot have answers for them, any more than we can blame those who were there at the time for not having answers to them. Mourning the consequences of the events of the time is one thing; expecting that they could have been different and better, rather than just different, is another. All we can do now is seek to contextualise them in the broader patterns of the history of Muslims.

The loss of Muslim power in India was both a factor of the rise of Western imperialism and the inability of Muslim empires to resist it; and the fact that Muslims have suffered in India subsequently is ultimately a result of the failure of Muslim rulers to establish Islam more deeply in India when they had the opportunity, long before the arrival of the British. And that itself was a factor of the long-established corruption of Islamic politics and societies that can be traced back, ultimately and through many, many intermediate stages, to the establishment of malukiyyah in place of Khilafat al-Rasul as the political power structure in the Ummah.

If we are to look to our history to understand what went wrong, that is the trajectory and process we should look at, tracing it through to our failures today; not focusing on the desperate floundering of a generation of Muslims left to cope with as best they could in the most difficult of circumstances and in the darkest days of our recent history, just a few short generations ago.

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